A Dangerous Dynamic
Is it just me, or are the same phenomena that have led men the country over to valorize Donald Trump’s overcompensating and toxic masculinity—by which I mean the decline of the patriarchy and increased competition from women for jobs and authority—leading to the birth of a new theatre movement?
At first I thought it was just my institution, where a very bro vibe has taken firm root in the most unlikely of departments: the theatre. But as I began to share concerns about this with colleagues across the country, I discovered that the phenomenon is not unique to upstate New York. Because this “bro theatre,” the theatrical equivalence of “fratire,” violates the very values our department tries to inculcate in our students, and because it is so popular that no criticism of it accepted, I find myself wondering how to find the teaching moments after productions that subscribe to the bro ethos have closed.
At first I thought it was just my institution, where a very bro vibe has taken firm root in the most unlikely of departments: the theatre. But as I began to share concerns about this with colleagues across the country, I discovered that the phenomenon is not unique to upstate New York.
I am a director who also teaches directing, and I recently recognized that an overemphasis on devised work and decontructions is leading some young directors to believe that they have no responsibility to play texts. Therefore, I have been consciously building the idea of serving the play back into my curriculum. My department is a pre-professional program that usually teaches students to follow Equity rules. And our students, like those everywhere, are very concerned about the existence of “unsafe spaces.”
But Bro Theatre devalues the play and the playwright, does not operate according to standard rehearsal rules, and is decidedly unsafe. At the same time, the same students concerned with unsafe spaces in other conversations relish the danger of being in the room with a bro director. They find that their instinct to ignore the play in favor of developing their own aesthetic is validated by him, and they argue on behalf of the bro that following professional protocols limits creativity.
The following characteristics define the bro theatre I’ve seen in the last several years. If you recognize any of this from the work happening around you, or have any additions to make, I’d love to hear about it. In particular, how do you constructively address this dynamic when you see it?
Bro Theatre is…
- Bro theatre is created through a process that makes the actors think they are involved in making their own choices even though the end product is entirely controlled by the director.
- War plays are popular choices, particularly deconstructions of the Greeks, but with the violence happening onstage instead of off.
- Rather than using fight choreography, bro directors like to have actors actually slap, grab, shove, and kick one another. For the naturalism.
- Why should the actors be fully clothed when they can be half naked?
- Hey, there are two women on stage! They should probably make out and feel each other up.
- While bro directors promote the idea that they are breaking artistic rules, the only rules they really break are the ones Equity created to keep actors safe and healthy, such as regular breaks, fight calls, and safe use of the set.
- Performances are characterized by actors screaming, crying, and slamming themselves into walls.
- Rehearsals are characterized by the director screaming and slamming things into the walls while the actors try not to cry.
Obsessed with Bodies
- This obsession connects to the over-sexualization of the actors, but extends to include a focus on drinking and drunkenness, tangles and piles of bodies on the ground, actors smearing substances on their bodies, and the use of ropes and other ties to bind and manipulate bodies.
Uses Spectacle to Distract from Problems
- The visual style of bro theatre is often so arresting that audience members don’t realize that there’s no reason for the women to be topless or for the white people to be wearing ethnic clothing.
Dangerous for Actors
- Despite the presence at the institution of voice teachers and certified fight choreographers, bro directors would prefer that actors scream themselves a set of vocal nodes and actually hit each other than have to acknowledge anyone else’s expertise.
- Bro directors find that “honesty” in a performance is best engendered by using the actors’ personal experiences—or, alternately, “dream work”—against them and yelling them into tears before performances.
Devalues Plays and Playwrights
- A bro director uses other people’s ideas and intellectual property only as vehicles for his self-expression.
- A bro director will often say, “I’m glad [insert playwright’s name] won’t be seeing this!” Or, “I wasn’t as interested in the play as I was in the feelings it creates.”
Coopts Feminist and Anti-Racist Language
- A bro director will publicize his show as “exploring race and sex” or “expressing the actors’ feelings about race and sex” when all it does is fetishize race and sex for visual effect.
- But you can’t criticize bro theatre for being sexist and racist because the bro already said he was exploring race and sex! And you can’t say it’s unsafe because he already said it’s the actors themselves whose feelings matter!
Generates a Cult Following Among Student Actors
- Bro directors convince their actors that his way is the only way to create “real” performances.
- Fellow bros respond enthusiastically to bro directors and relish being pushed, even when that pushing is literal.
- Some young women, sensing that the guys they like like the bro director, will quash any feelings of discomfort in hopes of attaining favor from the bros.
- Women and men who express their discomfort and even offense are brosplained away, with such statements as, “It’s good that you were offended! And here’s why!”
- A bro director rarely acknowledges his predecessors or inspirations and deliberately leads actors to believe that he figured out how to make theatre all by himself, primarily by refusing to follow anybody’s lead and, you guessed it, breaking all the rules (even the ones that he later claims he only didn’t follow because “nobody told me about that”).
Have you seen anything like this at your institution? If so, have you found any productive ways to counter its unraveling of progress? When students love something that faculty know is hurting them physically, emotionally, and professionally, how can we educate them out of their fandom and into a way of thinking critically about it?
Update: May 6, 2016
As I enjoy the comments pouring in on Bro Theatre, I have been challenged to clarify my thoughts and define some of my terms, and am happy to do so.
Let me begin by saying that Bro Theatre is not necessarily devised, nor did I intend to devalue devised work or blame it for Bro Theatre. The popularity of devised work is what has led me to reintroduce a focus on plays and playwriting in my teaching, but this is not an effort to convince students not to do devised work—in fact in many classes and in our student production program we teach them how to do it quite successfully. My curricular goal is merely to ensure that we are training directors to make things from scratch; to make things that borrow from others; to work on a published, copyrighted play; and to collaborate with playwrights.
Secondly, I’d like to clarify that bros are not necessarily students, nor would they exist without their female counterparts. As I’m using it, bro defines a subculture of people with a shared identity and values, including the “chill” attitude of surfers and lacrosse players, the partying habits of Greek life, and the aesthetic of violent video games and blockbuster action films. Brogrammers are in their 20s and 30s. George Ouzounian and Tucker Max, the writers of what has been termed “fratire,” are 38 and 40 respectively. The character of How I Met Your Mother’s Barnabus Stinson was identified as being only a few years younger than the actor who played him, and in the final year of that show, Neil Patrick Harris was 40. Finally, some women chill, party, love video games and violent movies, and are most comfortable in environments where men are manly. In fact bro subculture could not exist without the participation of women.
Thirdly, the physically and emotionally dangerous rehearsal process I describe is in no way new. Until actors formed a union, it was common for them to be asked to work long hours without breaks and to engage in dangerous physical activities. In the mid-20th century directors like Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, who directed A Streetcar Named Desire by poking actors with a rapier during scene work, popularized the notion that the director’s job is to push actors to the breaking point. Thirty years later, while working on Chekov, Nikos Psacharapolous once got an actor to deal with a cup of tea being spilled on her as if the water were hot by actually putting boiling water in the cup without telling her.
In other words, the danger I’m attempting to name by creating the term Bro Theatre is not the result of the popularity of devised theatre. Though some Bro Theatre uses the excuse of devising to avoid acknowledging influence by anyone else’s ideas, devised theatre can be quite well made and intellectually honest.
The danger of Bro Theatre is also not because some theatre people are bros. If there is any other subculture that values a good party as much as bros, it’s the theatre. In fact, none of the characteristics that define the bro subculture are inherently bad, nor are the people who participate in it.
The danger also does not lie solely in the rehearsal methods it employs, though manipulation, improvised violence, and staging of sexual content without engaging in the discussions and practices necessary to securing real consent are quite dangerous. The danger in bro theatre is actually in the combination of these things. Bro Theatre uses the most abusive aspects of the Method in service of an aesthetic that glorifies debauchery and sexualizes violence, all the while claiming that it’s actually a statement against those things.
The truth is that when directors create art by making their collaborators suffer under their power and that art depicts worlds in which people suffer the abuse of people in power, they aren’t examining the phenomenon, they are reifying it. They are not commenting on or satirizing the idea that the patriarchy is sexy, they are making it concrete and literal in space and time and in the audience’s and artists’ minds. That is the danger.
Bro Theatre uses the most abusive aspects of the Method in service of an aesthetic that glorifies debauchery and sexualizes violence, all the while claiming that it’s actually a statement against those things.
Now that that’s cleared up, what to do?
Through engaging with readers in the comments, on twitter, and via facebook, I’ve heard some useful suggestions and been challenged to think away from blanket statements and towards solutions myself. Here are some of the things I’m going to try next semester:
Teach more psychological directing techniques. Less abusive versions of Method directing have long been employed to yield rich emotional performances that do not harm the actor, so giving students something other than manipulation as a tool to create those kinds of performances may help them steer clear of tactics that might create a big emotional experience for the actor but could also cause harm.
Create a production code that specifies policies for working with violence, sexual content, and/or nudity.
In the comments, Corey Fischer helpfully recalled his teacher’s evocation of the idea that a contract exists between the director and actors. In addition to sharing this idea with students as a way encouraging them to treat one another ethically, I might have directors and actors enter into a written contract that requires the director to state up front any need to use stage violence, sexual content, and/or nudity, and allows the actor the opportunity to give consent and set boundaries.
Require that the programs for devised pieces credit any source material that is directly lifted from another artist’s work.
Require that if a student director wants to change a play, they have to get permission to do an adaptation, and then they have to call it an adaptation.
Emma Squire suggested further curricular revisions. Instead of trying to teach separate classes on devising and directing plays, I might create one class that consists of three consecutive and distinct projects: making a devised piece, doing an adaptation, and doing a true-to-text piece. This way we could discuss the distinctions, possibilities, and limitations of the three in comparison to one another, all while stressing that none of those ways of working are excuses for unethical behavior.
Become an actor combatant and eventually a certified fight choreographer.
Teach a class on the real meaning of satire.
Of course, I can’t change what happens in anyone’s classroom but my own, nor can I keep directors from making Bro Theatre if that’s what they really want to do. I run the risk of making myself the department buzzkill by cracking down, a label that will affect my standing with students and faculty alike. But I can at least demonstrate, in my directing and in my teaching, that making work ethically doesn’t have to keep anyone from making work creatively.